Toward Understanding Jewish High Holidays

When Project Director for ecumenical endeavor in Goshen, IN during 2001, I prepared and distributed this bulletin insert for use among area churches. I had received a Worship Renewal Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, MI with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc. With thanks for an interview with Rabbi Friedland of Sinai Synagogue, South Bend, IN.

Our world needs good will! Events remind us of the desperate actions that can follow from stark gaps in economics or ideology or religious values. Hopefully, we who are Christian will claim anew the holy imperative: to foster greater human understanding across differences, to value diverse ways of knowing God.

One hope for enabling respect is through common knowledge. Christians and Jews share a great deal of history. We hold sacred texts in common. In stories —about creation and wisdom, prophets and kingdoms, the Pentateuch and Psalms—we together encounter and praise the One God.

Jews and Christians also differ on key points of faith. But that fact need not keep either religious group from honoring the other’s “holy ground.” One opportunity to better discover what gives people meaning comes through their celebration of holy days. A cluster of High Holidays falls within the 7th Jewish month of Tishri (equivalent to parts of the Gregorian September-October).

This church bulletin insert highlights several holidays, any one of which also calls Jews to pledge assistance to people who are less fortunate. Charity and alms express “the ethical dimension inherent in prayer.” As Strassfeld [see resources] clarifies, Judaism is less concerned with when events took place and more devoted to their meaning. They value both Historical and Cyclic time.

Rosh Ha-Shanah – Returning Anew

This two-day event, that is held in the synagogue on September 17-18 in 2001, commemorates the New Year of creation. God the creator of the whole world from the beginning of time is addressed: “May it be Your will to renew us for a year that is good and sweet.” Rituals include dipping apple slices into honey.

Faithful Jews are called to careful self-examination. Piercing blasts of the shofar, the central symbol of the High Holidays, awaken them. One long blast of the horn precedes three short ones before nine staccato bursts. As Jews review the past year, they expect to deal with negative personal aspects. As they approach the Days of Awe (Yom Kippur or Day of At-one-ment), they make commitments to change. They ask forgiveness of those whom they have wronged.

Torah readings (the first five books of Hebrew scripture) focus on the birth and binding of Isaac. Themes include birth after barrenness, deliverance after exile, and rescue from sacrifice. The central portion of the Rosh ha-Shanah service includes themes or blessings surrounding chief aspects of Judaism. 1) Accept God as king of the universe (sovereignty/control); 2) declare that God intervenes in the world, to reward or punish (remembrance); 3) recognize that God and the Torah were revealed at Sinai and that God will again appear to deliver Jews at the end of days (revelation).

During the ten days between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holiday process of repentance and asking forgiveness continues.

Yom Kippur – Day of At-one-ment – The most solemn day of the year is September 27 in 2001. With complete rest from work, a light burns in memory of deceased parents. The shofar sounds, and prayers recur as fasting Jews near the end of self-exam, ask: Where is change warranted: toward God, others, and self? The nearly-closed gate of heaven symbolizes the last chance to repent.

Five services occur—to cleanse the will, mind, heart, and functions. Kol Nidrei begins in the evening followed the next morning by Shaharit and readings from the Torah and Isaiah. During Musaf, the longest service of the year, Jews hear details of the former temple service reviewed and note the martyrdom of sages. Hearing “YHWH,” they completely prostrate. The early afternoon service (Minhah) includes a reading of the book of Jonah. God’s compassion and Jonah’s resistance, the inability to flee and a call to serve all face the penitent. With time running out, Neilah concludes the day, being a passage from sin to starting over

Sukkot, October 1, 2001, begins the 7-day Festival of Booths. No longer somber, Jews rejoice; they focus on beauty. Living in a temporary booth, they recall Israel’s desert wandering, conscious of God’s shelter. Open to all, within a house of prayer for all nations, they read and recite texts, share meals with guests, and conduct rituals of blessings using four species: citron, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows.

“Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who . . .” recurs.

Shemini Atzeret – the day after the last day of Sukkot revels with the Torah. Having completed reading Deuteronomy, Jews begin again with Genesis 1:1.

As Protestants are loyal to different denominations, modern Jews may be part of groups called Reformed, Orthodox, or Conservative. Other movements include Hasidic, Liberal, or Reconstructionism. The Reform group, begun early in 19th century Germany, brought change in order to be more accepted, as through use of the native language rather than Hebrew. Reacting to Reform freedoms, such as aspects related to rituals or holidays, Orthodoxy stressed fundamental Jewish law. Meanwhile Conservative Jews search for a middle way, which leads to wide divergence among them.

Resources: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, The Jewish Way; Harold Kushner, To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking; sketches appear in Michael Strassfeld’s The Jewish Holidays A guide & Commentary